After 50 Years, Inclusive, Locally Focused Spirit of NOLA Festival Persists

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In 1970, Mahalia Jackson surprised attendees of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival by jumping in on vocals when she found the Eureka Brass Band parading across the grounds near the lone stage. It was an organic moment borne of the musicians’ shared cultural heritage—one they, in turn, shared with Duke Ellington, also in town for the festival, and the crowd that gathered around them.

As the festival geared up for this year’s 50th anniversary edition, those humble beginnings seemed somewhat locked in the past, given the event’s current size (12 stages, eight days), scope (Katy Perry and the Rolling Stones initially were among the headliners) and cost ($85 a day, with a one-day discount for locals).

But one of the crowning achievements of Jazz Fest, which ran April 26–May 5, is that the inclusive, locally focused spirit of that 1970 Eureka parade remained largely intact—if occasionally obfuscated by big-name “gets” like the Stones. As it turned out, the Stones and their would-be replacements, Fleetwood Mac, canceled; Widespread Panic filled in. Whether because of that shuffle or the extra day that was added to the bill, this year’s program had a more ambling pace than previous years, particularly for Jazz and Blues Tent fans, whose main headliners were spread out across the two weekends. In a way, that brought perennial local acts to the fore, while giving attendees even more reason to look beyond performances from headliners like Diana Ross and Herbie Hancock, and toward the interlocking map of multicultural currents that permeated the rest of the schedule.

Among those highlights was Congolese outfit Jupiter & Okwess, who returned to the fest with multiple, highly varied sets, some of which saw the group’s feisty frontman, Jupiter Bokondji Ilola, leaning hard into rock-heavy Afro-funk. At other performances—particularly one in the enclosed and dance-friendly Cultural Pavilion—the band channeled its fire through modernized soukous grooves and hard-hitting rhythms that underscored the music’s political and social messages.

Local act The Pinettes Brass Band lit up the Cultural Pavilion in one of multiple sets, as well, using tight syncopation and impeccable, large-ensemble arrangements to deconstruct and reconstruct pop songs, like Katy Perry’s “Roar” with the same verve they infused classics from the New Orleans brass band repertoire.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton delivered a memorable performance as well. His Light Beings set focused on cerebral funk, turning in tricky rhythms and cascades of deep grooves with a strong assist from Cliff Hines’ guitar and modular synth oddities. Near the end of the set, Payton offset a keyboard riff reminiscent of his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape with a quote from “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” without straying from the funk foundation, it felt as if multiple moments in his creative trajectory had come together at once.

The first weekend’s top jazz draw was a Marsalis family reunion, honoring 84-year-old pianist, composer and educator Ellis Marsalis and featuring his sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, alongside their father. Such reunions and tributes can come off as contrived; this one was anything but. From the opening bars of “Crescent City Strut” to the parade the band led offstage at the end of their performance, the show was a study in blazing hot horn solos that dovetailed into Ellis’ steady, warm elegance at the piano. The family’s musical selections zeroed in on Ellis’ work as a composer, while students from his namesake music center in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward highlighted his contributions to the city’s legacy of intergenerational music education.

The second weekend focused more on elders sharing stages with younger players—courtesy of the ever-sprawling Trumpet Mafia—and kicked off with a handful of students playing the dirge section of “St. James Infirmary.” As the tune opened up, a core group of older trumpeters, including Maurice Brown, walked onstage, playing to a wave of cheers. By the time the whole diverse and flexible group was onstage, there were too many trumpeters to see, let alone count. At the center of it all was Ashlin Parker, clad in a dark, wide-brimmed hat and a green, black and gold camo T-shirt emblazoned with the name “Trumpet Mafia.” A longtime member of the Ellis Marsalis Quintet and a prolific music teacher, Parker led the group through tunes by Roy Hargrove, Lonnie Smith and others, trading off solo opportunities and making strong use of the impressive rhythm section he’d enlisted. They, too, wrapped up with a parade—though theirs featured dozens of musicians—and plenty of fist-pumping.

The final day of the festival served up a hat trick of sorts, with Irma Thomas echoing the positive messages of Mahalia Jackson in her annual gospel set. Hancock, whose like-minded sidemen (Terrace Martin, Lionel Loueke, James Genus, Vinnie Colaiuta) helped update the vibe of their bandleader’s heady space-fusion bliss and “Chameleon”-era hits alike. Finally, local soul favorites Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, stuck around well past the end of their designated time on the Congo Square Stage, bringing the day to a close with line dances, singalongs and a breeze swaying beneath pink and white clouds—a proper conclusion to a well-rounded and soulful 50 years of music. DB




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